Jusuf is 13 years old. He is Kurdish and comes from Syria. At the time that he told this story (August 2016) he was living in a refugee camp in Northern Greece
My father was a tailor, he made clothes for children and men and women. He had a shop next to the house, like this place we are sitting in now, when I was five years old. This was in a village. The family was not big then but as we grew we had to move to a bigger place. I was eight when we moved to a bigger house but it was not nice, it was full of ghosts. One time we had a fire on Christmas eve. There was oil on a plate and it suddenly caught fire and when my father tried to extinguish it with water it got worse and came all over my father’s face. Another time there was an oil heater which had a switch which was impossible to turn, but that also caught fire and I saw that the switch had turned on its own. And the room caught fire and everyone came from the neighbourhood with hoses and water. And there was a water heater that we had in the house, to make hot water and a few days after that fire my brother went inside the toilet and the water heater fell down on its own, and it was full of hot water and my brother was afraid, because it could have crushed him but, thanks to God, he jumped out of the way. But he was crying, and my mother came and took him in her arms and said: don’t cry and then she went to my father and said: this house is not safe, it is full of ghosts. We must leave, so we left and rented another house.
The next house was fine. I am not sure how long we stayed. I went to school. My happiest memories are of playing with friends, going to school. We were preparing a play at school. I liked acting and it was a wonderful play. We had books and everyone had to read his role. I was a worm with forty four legs. There were no costumes, just acting. I liked school, it was a bit tough but it was fine. A lot of children got beaten by teachers. I got beaten for talking too much outside class. We never got beaten at home. My father’s style is not to beat me but to explain and guide me. Here he does not beat me but he is a little bit nervous and when he is nervous he says: please leave me alone.
The first I knew of war coming was when we saw people killed on TV and heads were cut off, stuff like that. My house was five minutes from school. From the time we saw stuff on TV, families started accompanying their children to school, even though it was only five minutes. We were afraid. I did not ask why people were fighting and if I did, my father said: don’t think about that.
My brother saw with his own eyes one guy wearing an explosive belt around his waist. He was going to blow himself up. He was near a shop and everything exploded, he had planned to go to the school but did not make it. My brother saw the flash ad wanted to throw up. He was terrified, and mother too, and they came home. Also there was a fire in a car in front of the baker’s shop. I don’t know how it happened. All the soldiers pushed us away and stopped the road and then the fire department came and put out the fire. I don’t know where the boy with explosives was from. My mother and brother were just ten minutes behind him when he blew himself up. They heard the sound but had no idea what it was and kept walking untill they saw the body. Another time we were on the bus and saw all these buildings on fire, and something else before that. They dropped a bomb on the building in front of us. But it did not collapse and then another bomb came and it collapsed completely. And another thing I saw with my own eyes: I was on the roof and fighter planes were going close and shooting at buildings and then going up into the sky with rockets to bomb. I saw a plane drop two rockets and go up in the sky. I saw this millions of times in one or two years. We would be playing and see the fighters bombing and shooting over the houses.
They were not shooting us but we could see them. They were as close as those hills. Father did not allow us, but because I saw everything, I have nothing else to fear.
When that guy blew himself up, the army came and searched the whole area. They went into every house including ours. They were looking for IDs. They searched the whole house, then they said they were sorry and they left. But sorry is not enough and then they came every week. They came again and again to search our houses. One day soldiers came to the school. The Syrian army came into the school and started searching all over the place. They came into the classes, we were having an exam. There was just me and another girl finishing her exam. The soldiers came in and I was so afraid, I cried and the girl cried. And they came to me and said: Sweetie don’t cry, we wont do anything, we love you. And then the teacher called my my mother to come and pick me up but the army stopped her and told her she could not go. They said: sorry it is for your own safety. The second time she tried they told her again. So she tried going round. Finally a soldier escorted her into the school.
We left because we felt war was coming too close. My mother and father were discussing between them and decided we must go because we were so afraid. So we left. We took a bus, we bought tickets and there were many checkpoints. The Free Army; the Syrian Army; then it’s the Islamic state; then its Al Nusra. They let us go but many times we had to pay money, to all of them. It took fifteen to sixteen hours. We went to another town in Syria and then took a small van. There were many families including us and together we went to the mountains and it was a very hard road up and down and we had all our luggage with us, and luckily the police did not see us and finally we got to the edge of the mountains, and were about to fall, but the lead man stopped us. We drank water and rested and then we walked down a cliff. You could not take a van. It was full of mud so we went on foot for about a mile and then another car came and took us and when we moved I saw soldiers from the Turkish border guard coming. They did not see us but I don’t know what happened to the other families. We went to a gas station and stayed there four to five hours, sitting on the ground, eating and drinking. Then we got a bus to Istanbul. It took fourteen hours.We stayed in Istanbul seven or eight months, living in a house. Me, and my brother, and older brother and my father were working.
There was no school, so we worked. It was a shop owned by Turks. Me and my brother were not allowed to sit. We stood all day. Our job was to cut the pieces for sewing and to cut the thread. We worked from 8 am until 7 pm or with overtime until 10pm. We only had one hour break in the afternoon. They let you go to the toilet but only for one minute.I don’t remember how many weeks or months we were there but they did not pay us any money.
My older brother and my father were in another shop where they got money, but me and my little brother, they never paid us. In the beginning they said we cannot give money until we know how many pieces you cut, but he never paid. I think perhaps it was two weeks. Then we went to another shop from 8am to 11 pm. I was working with a machine sewing the zipper into the trousers. I liked that job. I worked there for two weeks and I got thirty Turkish lire for the whole time. Then another boy came and said: what is this? Why are you only giving thirty? The pay is ninety and that is not enough even for food. And the boss said: because he is no good. And another Turkish boss came with pipes that we were asked to assemble as a family. My father and brother would come home and after eating they would help us. I think as a family we assembled 5000 pipes in two to three months. We did get paid but I don’t know how much. The pipe pieces were small and it was difficult.
The day went like this: I woke up, I worked four hours, then we worked and watched TV, we did not feel the time, it went like that until night. I am not sure if we had days off. Perhaps once a week or once a month, I don’t remember. It is complicated in my head. On those days I went out. I could buy an ice cream and go to the park and play there. There was a play ground and I could see children playing football. After they finished we could play too. Some of them treated us like donkeys working for them, but maybe, I don’t know, I don’t understand the language. Some were good, others were not nice at all. One time a Turkish guy in the street gave me the shoulder. At home they asked what happened I said I don’t know, I was going to buy coffee at the Supermarket and this guy hits me with his shoulder. I asked him why and he said: because I like it!
We had to leave Turkey because the wages were very low and the house was very expensive. My father was getting a pain in his back because of his many hours at the sewing machine. So we decided to go. A smuggler took us to the coast, it took about ten hours and we reached the sea around 5 am. The area was full of rubber boats and a lot of people. The first boat left and the second. We were told to get in the third, but it had a hole and air was coming out and people said: no one get in.
Then the Kurdish Turkish guy took out a pistol from his waist and fired two shots in the air and said: get in now or I will shoot you all. So we got in, around seventy people, and we were all praying to God. And we went until we saw a boat with a Greek flag. But before we saw the ship we were still in Turkish waters, and we saw a Turkish ship, and she made circles around us and they took photos of us, and then they came back behind us and the driver of our boat hit the gas to go fast and the Turkish boat tried to block us, but we got into Greek waters and the Turkish boat went back because the Greek boat was bigger. At first we thought the Greek ship was Turkish and we were afraid. But the people from boats one and two waved and said: don’t be afraid they are Greek not Turkish, and they threw ropes and we attached them, and they gave us a stairway, and the children were allowed to board first, and then the women and then the men. But all the people were jumping over one another, but on the ship there were Greek police shouting and they knocked one guy with a stick.
We were frightened because when we were close to the ship it was moving so much and if we had not seen it, maybe we would have sunk. I could not swim then I just had a tyre, so I was really afraid.They took us to Mytilene and brought us food and water, then we got on a bus to a camp where we stayed around fifteen days. It was a nice camp. Outside was a shop and a diner, and you could go out. And next door was a camp full of Afghans which had something like a carnival, and we went to play there.
Then we went to another camp by the sea and I could go to the sea and from there I could see Turkey and one spot where all the rubber boats had been broken and cut by rocks and we stayed two days but then they told us we could not stay, because if more people came they would be sent back to Turkey.
Then my father bought tickets and we saw fancy people bringing clothes, and they gave us water and biscuits and we got a huge boat, which a bus could go inside. The bus did not go in but we did and we went upstairs and slept on the ship until morning. And around 10 in the morning it started to move and we sat in the restaurant and went on deck to see the sea and we saw different things. On both sides they had rubber boats. If the ship sank we could use those rubber boats but, thanks to God, nothing happened and we arrived in Athens. But when we got to the port the police were there and they put us in a bus. We travelled for maybe one day and then we stopped in a basket ball field and they gave us water and chocolate and we slept on the ground in the field. They gave us military sleeping bags but I did not sleep. We had blankets, we put one on the ground and the other to cover us. In the morning they gave us water and chocolate again and the buses came and took us to another camp: a military camp. It was full of snakes and spiders and scorpions and a lot of worms. The worms were everywhere and inside the tents. One day a snake came and was about to walk over one guy. From our first hour in that camp when we saw snakes we were afraid, so we moved to another area, but the police said that was dangerous too, so we moved again but we were afraid to go in the tents. Then a Syrian guy brought us a tent and me and my brother and the girls slept in the tent and the rest were outside. We were twenty four people.
Refugee children sleep on the ferry to Athens, March 2016. Lynne Jones
After just one day we decide we could not stay more and we told the police and they brought buses for us and everyone paid five euros for a bus which took us to the bus station. Then we got a taxi to Eko.The UNHCR gave us a tent and we fixed it and they gave us food and we ate and before the day was over the place was full of cars coming to bring help, different people from different organisations. They brought toilet paper, milk for children, diapers. But after a few days we did not see anyone, maybe one car.
At Eko I went to school. There was one teacher she spoke Arabic and English and I started to study. I used to go to school there every day and there was a caravan giving milk for children under five years old. We did not try to cross the border, I don’t know why. We were in Eko about two months but I want you to know they made the school bigger and better and they provided us with everything. They fixed a kitchen and they were giving us soup and bread once a day.
We left when the police told us to go. One day before they had told us we had to leave but we did not believe it. But when I got up I saw the police were surrounding the whole camp so I ran to the tent and I told my mother. Then all the people got up and we started to tell everyone and we saw people were leaving. The buses came, but before we got in we made a protest. We sang a song in Spanish: Eko camp resists. Everyone came together, foreigners and refugees and we stayed and sang together in front of the police. And they were about to capture the foreigners, but before we got on the buses we kept singing different songs and it was raining and we danced, and the police said: OK you must finish, and we took photos with the foreigners and then the buses started to take some families, and the police separated us from the foreigners and they were crying and we were crying, and they said: we will see you there in the next camp. The buses took us family by family. They told us not to wait in our tents but to wait outside. So we waited from early morning until evening, and when we got in the buses everyone was crying.
When we came here the police were here and we had to get blankets and a tent from UNHCR. I was depressed, I felt like I was choking and I could not breathe. When I went around the camp and saw the toilets, they were no good, I felt sorry for myself. I drank water, they gave us a tent. We were all shocked, but after a few days we got used to it. I had a conversation with a friend: its not nice, but maybe after a while it will be nicer, and that is true!
Now we have started to play, for example that is a playground, the school, its better than nothing, and there is a shady area to play and then the foreigners come to play with the children and do different kinds of play. And we have started to clean all over the camp and we have started to have volley ball, and some days we make a party and also we organise football matches like a league between different teams, although that is for older children, but we younger ones want it too and we did it two or three times. The children would be happy if you organised different competitive games like football and basketball. You should make the school bigger. It should have more staff and papers like in Eko. There should be study, play and different activities like drawing. Also there should be time for crafts and making things with our hands. We could have story telling in school and make a play.
In my sleep, exactly around midnight, I speak while I am dreaming, it looks like something is trying to choke me and I tell my father please stop it. But when my father asks me about this in the morning I don’t remember it at all. Sometimes I am a little afraid in the dark. One night in Eko I woke up and it was dark. I saw something coming and it put out a hand and tried to choke me and I ran to my mother and told her, but before that I had been ill, so maybe that is why. It has not happened again.
There is something I forgot to tell you. When I was at home in Syria I went to buy bread, when I came back I was in the middle of a big road and I saw two cars, one big and one small. A guy got out of the small one with a pistol and he was shooting at the big one. Then I dropped all the bread, I was so afraid and I ran home and was unable to talk and my mother tried to calm me down. I forgot to tell you about that.
We want to go back to Syria and get my uncles and aunts, they are all there. If the war stopped we would go straight back. I don’t know how the War can end. (Jusuf opens his hands and shrugs his shoulders in a sad hopeless gesture of emptiness.) My father never discusses the war in front of me.